Standing on the dock, watching the Voyageur II as it disappeared amidst the backdrop of greens, browns, and blues of McCargoe Cove, I turned and said to Dan, my friend and hiking partner for the next five days, “there’s no going back now.”
After months of planning, spending way too much money, and waiting for winter to release its icy grip on Lake Superior, we finally stood on Isle Royale. Dan and I boarded the ferry at Grand Portage, Minnesota with 24 other passengers; all but 9 of whom disembarked at Windigo. Of the remaining passengers, only two continued all the way to Rock Harbor, and the rest of us were dropped off at McCargoe Cove. Of the seven, a group of three went south towards Chicken Bone Lake, never to be seen again; two women were also hiking the Minong Ridge Trail, but after the first day we only saw them at the campgrounds.
Isle Royale National Park is among the least visited of the 59 current national parks. In 2016 only about 25,000 people came to the Island – at any one time there are almost certainly more moose than people on the Island. Lying a dozen miles from the rocky and cliff-lined Minnesota and Ontario coasts, Isle Royale rises nearly 800 feet above the deep, frigid waters of Lake Superior. The shortest ferry ride is from Grand Portage to Windigo, and takes 2 hours in calm weather. The isolation, as much as the grand scenery, draws visitors to the Island. It’s a rare thing today to be able to hike and not see another person for several days, but it’s possible on Isle Royale.
The Minong Ridge Trail is the least traveled and least maintained trail on the Island. It is possible to lose the trail while hiking the Minong Ridge, so care and a watchful eye are necessary to minimize backtracking and bushwhacking. Winding its way over the roughest terrain on the Island, the trail stretches over 31 miles (including spurs to Little Todd Harbor and North Lake Desor campgrounds) from McCargoe Cove to Washington Creek. Most backpackers will hike the trail from east to west, saving the 12-mile section from North Lake Desor to Washington Creek for last, when packs are their lightest. The trail routinely climbs up the steep rocky ridges so common on Isle Royale, then before you know it you’re scrambling down the other side back into the endless sea of birches, aspens, and maples. Seldom is the trail a leisurely stroll through the woods – even in the forested sections you will often find yourself climbing up, ducking under, or navigating your way around fallen trees. And just when you start to feel complacent, a swamp filled with thick, sticky mud, a beaver dam, or a powerful creek with only a thin log stretching from bank to bank for to you balance over will stand in your way.
The ferry gone, it was time to get started. After all, the only way off the Island now was to get to Windigo by noon on Sunday - a mere 94 hours to cover the 31 miles of rugged trail. I shouldered my 35-pound pack, stuffed to the brim with food, camping gear, and photography equipment, and walked up the nearby hill, leaving the cold north wind from Superior behind. As it turned out, a 38-liter pack for a five-night hike with a large amount of photography gear is a tight fit.
Immediately upon leaving the dock at McCargoe Cove we were climbing. Not a steep climb, but a continuous incline that was a shock to the feet and calves after the relaxing ferry ride over the last several hours. As the trail climbed through the woods the signs of moose were everywhere - tracks several inches deep in the mud, bark stripped from trees, and several antlers strewn on the ground. We eventually broke free from the trees and onto the first of the many exposed ridges that line the trail. Standing high above the rocky interior of the Island, our first views of Lake Superior and Canada to the north, the interior of Isle Royale and the imposing Greenstone Ridge to the south, for the first time we had a true idea of the wilderness that we then stood in.
Not long after the first views of the Island and the Lake, a hidden gem revealed itself to us - Otter Lake, shining sometimes blue, sometimes green, in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. Otter Lake sits very near the trail, but over 100 feet below the Minong Ridge, and to the best of my knowledge there is no trail that leads to its shores.
As the trail continued to the west, Otter Lake remained visible for some time until we finally descended into the forest for the final couple miles of trail before Todd Harbor. This segment was considerably easier than the first few miles of trail, but the many swampy stretches of trail can be quite slow to get through if you’re not keen on wading through deep, sticky mud. A few minutes before finally arriving at the campground is a small stream crossing. If you trust in your balance you can walk across a log, or if you’d rather play it safe you can take off your boots and easily ford the creek. In either case, soon enough we entered the Todd Harbor Campground, nestled along the shore of Lake Superior. After a strenuous introduction to the Island, the campground seemed an earthly Paradise - the cool northerly breeze from the big Lake commingled with the scent of pine needles and the sound of loons in the Harbor created an atmosphere of pure relaxation.
Todd Harbor Campground consists of one shelter (occupied), a number of individual campsites along the lake shore, and three group campsites situated on a hill on the eastern edge of the harbor. Wanting to avoid any wet ground, we elected group site number 1, secreted away from the other sites, which created the illusion of much more isolation than we actually had at Todd Harbor.
I ignited my gas stove and boiled a cup or two of water for my dinner - instant mashed potatoes mixed with dried milk, chicken bouillon, and flavored with herbs and spices. I crawled into my tent, Dan into his hammock, and finally my first day on Isle Royale was in the books.
As we secured our bags for Day 2, a snowshoe hare hopped into camp, presumably to beg for a tasty M&M or some hot cocoa. We bid the hare farewell and were off towards Little Todd Harbor.
From Todd to Little Todd Harbors the Minong Ridge Trail snakes its way over 6.7 miles of Isle Royale's forests, swamps, and rocky crests. In general, this section of trail isn’t as rugged as the first day, but the constant up and downs of the ridge will tire the feet and calves quickly. Along the trail we passed through several areas that seemed perfectly “moosey,” but our moose encounters would have to wait for another day.
Towards the end of the day we came across a stream, about 20 to 30 feet across, which had to be crossed. Dan and I walked up and down the southern bank of the stream in an effort to locate an easier crossing spot, but nothing we found seemed any better than the thin log which connected the two banks near where the trail disappeared into the cold stream. I elected to go first, and not wanting to test the log – or my luck – twice, I began to slowly creep along the log with my pack on, hoping that the log would support the 200 or so pounds and get me safely to the other side. The log was littered with small holes and cracks, into which I jammed the tips of my hiking poles for some added security. Thankfully the log was not wet nor slippery, and I eventually inched my way across to safety on the north bank of the crossing.
Once across, it was Dan's turn. He had watched me as I gingerly made my way across the bridge, and seeing how the log dipped and wobbled under my weight, decided that he’d find another route. A few dozen feet upstream from the trail the stream narrows to 15 or 20 feet, and at its deepest is close to 3 feet deep. Shoes off, pant legs rolled up, sturdy walking stick in hand, he began to wade through the stream. As I waited for him to cross, it was obvious that the force of the stream was trying its best to sweep him off his feet. Fortunately, he eventually made it across the stream; cold and muddy feet were his cost of admission for fording the stream.
Thankfully, the day’s hike was almost over at this point. We had been considering taking on two sections of trail, hoping to make it to North Lake Desor, another 5 or so miles to the west, but after the stream crossing, we elected to hike the 0.6-mile spur trail down to Little Todd Harbor and call it a day.
The spur trail which leads down towards Little Todd Harbor was one of the muddiest sections of trail for us on the entire hike. Almost immediately after leaving the Mining Ridge we found ourselves hopping from one half-sunken log to another, with the odd tree root, rock, or island of solid ground in between, before we made it back to dry land. A short distance after the first muddy section was another, and then after that another one. All told, considering the sloppy muck that we encountered on the spur trail, we covered the six-tenths of a mile in scarcely more than 20 minutes. The miles between Todd Harbor and Little Todd Harbor only took us 4.5 hours to cover.
The campground at Little Todd Harbor is much smaller and less developed than at Todd Harbor. No shelters, no group sites. Just four individual campsites, each with a fire pit, and a single outhouse. With nobody else at the campground, we had our pick of sites, and chose site 3 because of its ample shade and dry ground. All four sites are within throwing distance from Little Todd Harbor’s pebble beach, replete with drift wood and gorgeous views of Lake Superior and the Sleeping Giant miles away to the north.
Stay tuned for Part II of hiking the Minong Ridge Trail, where we finish the hike and step back on the ferry back to civilization!